Oh, Oppo, it’s 100º and I’ve had beer, so it’s story time. I actually struggled to think of a story, before I remembered this one.
My last week working in Bukhara, my group and I went out to buy some fruit from the market and then go have some beer, before going back to our hostel and having more beer. On our way back from the market, the main bazaar in the city, I had been lagging behind a bit, because I had a broken toe, and because I stopped to buy some Karvon cigarettes from a street stall.
It’s hard to describe Karvon cigarettes. They’re unfiltered and somewhat reminiscent of, say, Camel unfiltered cigarettes (not Lucky Strikes, which are toasted). They taste like they’re made of death, newspaper, and radioactivity. Smoking them will make you acutely aware of your own mortality. One chain-smoking Frenchman handed a pack to me “This is horrible, I can’t smoke it. Here.” I liked them.
When I caught up, Ana was looking at a tree, ready to pluck a branch. Ana did this most places we went. She was about 40 and Bulgarian. The first time I met Ana, she was rolling a cigarette and did that thing where you use your lighter to burn it closed. It’s really cool and I have never been able to do it. She would later try to teach me and told me a boyfriend taught her. On the train from Tashkent to Bukhara, we were eating stale bread and canned paté. Ana pulled out a huge fucking knife and used it to serve the paté. She clearly relished the fact that everyone else on the train was staring at her huge fucking knife.
She would only speak to me in French. At first she sort of ignored me entirely, but after a week or so, she started repeating things slowly and bearing with me while I tried to reply. I didn’t mind so much, as I had made it clear to the others that they only had to speak to me in English if it was something of dire importance, otherwise I would manage with what I could understand. At some point Ana took me aside and said, in English, “I don’t want you to think that I don’t like you, but I’m not comfortable speaking English. If you want to talk, we can, but I won’t speak to you in English if anyone else is around.”
When I caught up to Ana looking at the tree, the others had already walked ahead a bit. About 30 feet away, there was a homeless man laying on the side of the road. My inner Manhattanite took control and I stopped in my tracks and watched him in case he got up.
That wasn’t without good cause. The youngest woman with us was frequently grabbed on buses and streets. One time, around 2 AM, I woke up in our hostel to see that the room was empty. I went downstairs to find Ana sitting outside smoking a cigarette and playing with her knife while a few other men were sitting around smoking in a very pissed off way. I asked what happened, and they told me that two Russian engineers who were staying in the hostel had gotten drunk and had been banging on the door of Ana and the young woman trying to get them to let them into the room. Me and three others decided to pay them a visit at their room. Nothing physical happened, but they left the next day.
While I was watching the homeless man, Ana looked over at me and then at the man. There was a woman walking down the street with a child, she looked at the man and then pulled her son close and kept walking. Ana just stood there for a while and stared, then she called the others over and walked up to him. I asked someone what was going on, and she told me that the man was dead. About ten feet from him was a man selling refurbished mechanical parts. Ana starting speaking to him in Russian him about the man. As was translated to me, he said “Him? Yes, he’s a drunk. Ignore him.” She said he was dead and asked why he didn’t call for help. He said “I called a few hours ago and no one came.”
We stood there for a while and then walked off to the bar in complete silence. No one mentioned it again and the silence persisted through drinks.
I had been to funerals before. I had seen open caskets. But this was very different. I had never seen anyone who was truly dead dead. And I had never seen anyone who had just given up and died like that on the street.
I remembered later that I had walked that way earlier in the day to go to the market and buy a needle and thread. I certainly passed him—alive—sitting there on the street, but I didn’t notice. He died alone on a side walk and no one came to collect his body for hours. He had a life and then he didn’t, and when he didn’t, it went unnoticed.
Oh bury me not
And his voice failed there
But we took no heed
To his dying prayer
In a narrow grave
Just six by three
We buried him there
On the lone prairie.
I’ve told this story to quite a few people in the hope that in some way that man won’t become forgotten entirely.